Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

I originally bought the three books that make up the Gormenghast Trilogy a few years back on Exclusive Books' annual sale. Only now did I get around to reading the first book, Titus Groan. All I knew was that the books were supposedly fantasy. Even so, this book was completely different to anything I could have imagined. Truth be told, Titus Groan is like nothing else out there.

The book was first published in 1946, and is considered a fantasy classic. However, there is not much that puts us in mind of what I usually associate with fantasy. No magicians, no evil orks, no dragons... Yet the universe create, Gormenghast, is undeniably fantastic.

We enter this world as Titus, the new heir to the Earling of Gormenghast is born. Meticulously we follow servants around as they go about their daily duties while the happy news is spreading. One person isn't very happy, though. That is Titus' taciturn big sister Fuchsia. Nanny Slagg is now hard kept to keep the demanding Fuchsia happy, while beaming over the newborn.

Gormenghast literally stands on tradition, and Titus' father, Earl Sepulchrave, spends his days performing the daily rites expected of him, before retreating to his beloved library. His wife Gertrude is the classic cat lady, despite being married. Under their noses, drama is brewing in the castle. Titus' wetnurse has some personal issues to attend to. Swelter the chef has murderous fantasies. One of his former "minions", Steerpike, has managed to escape the kitchens, and is now making his steady way up towards power. Sepulchrave's sisters, the twins Cora and Clarice are cooped up in their rooms pondering the neglect and fall from fame. Meanwhile, an ignored Fuchsia is trying to find herself in a world of mostly old people.

The prose in this book is on another level. Stunningly and vividly written, Peake really puts us into the scenes and makes Gormenghast come to life for the reader. But this is also a surprisingly funny book. Some of the characters are downright hilarious and unforgettable for it. Nanny Slagg's constant moaning about being unloved and unappreciated. Cora and Clarice being manipulated by Steerpike. Doctor Prunesquallor and his spinster sister having a conversation. Not to mention the epic showdown between Swelter and Flay.

You kind of expect a book whose title is the name of one of the characters, to be mostly about that character. For Titus Groan this is very much not the case. The book spans in time to when Titus is just over one year old. The little we see of him is through ceremonies, and through the lives of the people around him. But towards the end we get to see that Titus is special. We just don't know how or why yet. I guess the next books in the trilogy, Gormenghast and Titus Alone will give us the answers.

This is a book to be savoured. Let Peake lead you by the hand into this oh so strange but so interesting universe. No need to rush - the words are there, and the plot will thicken soon enough. Just enjoy.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith/ J. K. Rowling

The big reveal in the world of crime fiction this year, was that J. K. Rowling wrote the novel The Cuckoo's Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The book got brilliant reviews before anyone knew Rowling was behind it, and after the cat came out of the bag, the book has been flying off the shelves. A nice boost for Rowling, after her less successful The Casual Vacancy.

I finally got around to reading it after one of my coworkers recommended it. It's been applauded as a great classic crime, but to me it does have a nice amount of the hardboiled in it too.

We follow private investigator Cormoran Strike, a war veteran with one leg missing, who's just been left by his fiance. Business has not been going well either, but Strike's luck is changing all in one day. Firstly his new super-sub Robin just walked into his office and started making the business seem professional (all Batmans need their Robins, right?). Secondly, Strike just got a new client. John Bristow wants Strike to investigate the alleged suicide of his sister, supermodel Lula Landry. Apart from the fact that Strike cannot afford to reject the case, there's also a personal tie between Bristow and Strike.

As Strike starts honing in on the last movements of the troubled and haunted supermodel, it becomes more and more clear that Landry was indeed murdered. But the closer Strike gets to the truth, the higher the risk of more dead bodies turning up.

Strike is an interesting character, as he's such a nice blend between the classic and the hardboiled. At times his deductive powers are equal to that of Poirot or Holmes. However, there are also times where luck more than anything is what brings him to the truth. His troubled personal life, his rather colourful upbringing, all make Strike a difficult man to predict. Even after finishing the book I feel that I have a lot more to learn about Strike himself. His substitute secretary Robin is the perfect addition to Strike.

The rest of the novel is sprinkled with characters from all walks of life. From the glitz and glam of the fashion world, to the darker world of domestic violence. From the gutter to the penthouse. The characters feel authentic and reinforces the mystery surrounding Lula Landry's death.

The novel had me going from start to finish. As I read the last few pages I felt a little bit sad to leave Strike and Robin behind. But there's no reason to believe Rowling won't continue this new world of hers, so I'm excited to see what comes next. Not just a Potter face, hey Rowling?

Thursday, 17 October 2013

City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare | Another plunge into YA

I will shamelessly admit that I not only skipped reading book 1 in The Mortal Instruments because I saw the movie, but also that watching the movie was what finally made me want to read these books that my friends have recommended for years... And yes, I actually really enjoyed the movie! Truth be told I was expecting something very Twilight'y, but Jace and Clary kick so much more booty than Bella and Edward can ever dream of doing. It's so refreshing to have a female hero whose solution to everything isn't crying and navel-gazing. But I didn't merely like this universe simply because it isn't Twilight. City of Ashes is fast paced and action-packed. I love that there's a lot of humour and sarcasm. I almost wish I was 16 reading this book, I probably would have loved it more.

City of Ashes picks up right where City of Bones left off. There's awkwardness between Clary and her two "suitors" Simon and Jace. Seeing as the "Darth Vader" of this universe, Valentine, dropped the bomb on Jace and Clary that he's their father, the budding romance between Clary and Jace was abruptly canceled, and now Simon, Clary's lifelong bff has decided to move up to being her bf. In book 1 Valentine acquired the Mortal Cup, one of the mortal instruments of the Shadowhunters. Now, he's upping his game by going after the Mortal Sword, which will give him power to control demons. But rather than focusing on Valentine's plans, the Shadowhunters' Inquisitor goes after Jace, believing him to be one of Valentine's pawns.

Meanwhile, Clary's mom is still unconscious, some very hectic changes are affecting good old Simon, and Clary and Jace are trying to keep each other at arms length. Soon they'll all be thrown together to try throw off the hordes of demons coming to Valentines beck. There will be blood.

What I really enjoy about The Mortal Instruments is that it's so real. Fine, maybe not a lot of us have to cope with the dilemma of falling in love with someone who turns out to be your brother, but there's something real in the emotional drama. The characters feel authentic and keep expanding as we read.

In total there is going to be 6 books in this series. Book 6 is due for release in May 2014. Enough time for me to finish the other books in this series, as well as the prequel trilogy The Infernal Devices. Yay to YA!

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Finally... The news I've been waiting for since I finished the last pages of Fool's Fate, the third book in the Tawny Man Trilogy by Robin Hobb. The end of the world better not come before August 2014, when the first book in a new trilogy about Fitz and the Fool is set for release. I AM SO EXCITED! I get to return to the universe I love so much, in the company of my two oh so dear friends, FitzChivalry Farseer and his/my Beloved Fool.

I LOVE to say I told you so. In my reviews of Hobb's books on this blog I've mentioned more than once that I hope/predict a return to these characters in what will probably be a last showdown. The tearjerking ending of Fool's Fate did indeed leave room for a reunion between my best friends in literature, and I cannot wait to see what Hobb has in store for us.

The planned trilogy will be the third trilogy about Fitz and the Fool, preceded by The Farseer Trilogy and The Tawny Man Trilogy. These books will always have a special place in my heart, as Assassin's Apprentice, book 1 in The Farseer Trilogy was my initial introduction to fantasy literature. I've been in love ever since.

Hobb has written two other series set in the same world. The Lifeship Traders and The Rainwild Chronicles might not focus on the Six Duchies where Fitz lives, but the plots and stories are connected all the same. I'm excited to see if Kelsingra, featured strongly in Blood of Dragons, the last book of The Rain Wild Chronicles, will have a function in the new Fitz and Fool Trilogy.

Those that have read the books, know that a lot of the unanswered questions from the two trilogies about Fitz and the Fool are being answered in Blood of Dragons, so I'm now curious to see if there are still answers left, or if this new trilogy will pose new questions. Certainly the Fool has remained, to an extent, a mystery.

I am so grateful to Robin Hobb for continuing to tell these beautiful, vivid stories. One day, if I have any, I hope to read her books to my kids. If not, I'll just settle for being a weird old lady who reads books to her dogs;)

If you still haven't read Robin Hobb's books, please please PLEASE read Assassin's Apprentice. It will change your life (unless you're like, a sociopath, or something).

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

I’ve been putting off reading this book for quite a while. As it is the first book in The Kingkiller Chronicles, I wanted to wait until all the books were out (I think it’s a trilogy), but when I stumbled over the book at a sale, I bought it, and once it was on my shelf it became harder to put off. We’ll see how long I can resist reading book 2, The Wise Man’s Fear now that I’ve entered this universe. Book 3 is due for release in 2014.
So I’d heard a lot of good things about The Name of the Wind, and naturally I had quite high expectations. What I tend to love about fantasy literature is browsing the fantasy section in a book shop, choosing one based on the cover, and discovering that it’s actually a gem. I think that when something comes highly recommended, the chance of disappointment is higher. Unfortunately this was partly the case for The Name of the Wind.
The beginning of the novel felt tedious and slow. The characters didn’t intrigue me, the plot felt vague, and I started to wonder if this was what the hype was all about. Once the “real” story kicks in, my enjoyment increased, but it still took me a long time to really get passionate about the story. The more the story progressed, the more involved I became, and towards the end of it, I was really quite hooked.
The beginning of the novel places us at the Wayside Inn, where innkeeper Kote and his apprentice Bast are going about their daily quiet lives. Business is slow, and we learn that there is a silence shadowing Kote. At the same time, dark forces are about, and Kote seems to know something about it. The entrance of Chronicler onto the scene changes the silence hovering over Kote. Chronicler has somehow managed to trace down Kote, whose real name is Kvothe, who we learn is legendary. After some initial resistance to the idea, Chronicler manages to persuade Kvothe to tell his story, to eliminate mere rumours from what really happened, once and for all. Chronicler only has three days to record Kvothe’s story, and The Name of the Wind covers what Kvothe told of his story on the first day.
Kvothe begins his story by stressing that his background as Edema Ruh – a travelling troupe – explains a lot about how his life has turned out. He started his life on the road, wandering from place to place and entertaining people. Kvothe’s first encounter with sympathy – the magic in this world – came through a man who travelled with them for a while and taught Kvothe a lot. A prodigy, Kvothe could pick up anything in record time.
Kvothe’s idyllic life cannot last. One night disaster strikes. As Kvothe returns to the campsite after a night stroll, he finds the whole troupe, including his parents murdered. “Someone’s parents have been singing entirely the wrong songs” one of the murderers tells Kvothe. Kvothe’s father was working on a song about the Chandrian, a mythical group of men known to leave death and blue flame in their wake. Can the childhood horror be true? Are the Chandrian real?
After the death of his parents, Kvothe’s life is thrown into turmoil. After spending months in the wild playing on his father’s lute, Kvothe makes his way to the big city nearby. Kvothe spends three hard years in Tarbean before he remembers his new mission in life, to find the Chandrian and avenge his parents.
Although he is still young, Kvothe decides to try to get admitted to the University. A miracle secures Kvothe’s admittance, but his arrogance and impatience quickly ensures Kvothe enemies among the masters of the University as well as the other students. After being denied access to the Archives, Kvothe realises that the way to find the Chandrian will be longer than anticipated.
The rest of the book focuses on Kvothe’s path from E’lir to Re’lar at the University, his challenges and successes, and Denna, the love of his life.
There is a lot of foreshadowing in this book. Before Kvothe starts his story, he gives a summary of some of the things he is known for, which makes sense considering that in this world, Kvothe’s name is legendary. Rothfuss also uses a lot of fairytale traits. Numbers like 3 and 7 are given significance. Myths and song verses come to have a deeper meaning within the context of the story.
In the middle of Kvothe’s telling, things are still happening at the Wayside Inn, reminding us that we are being told a story, while life goes on in the present time. This comes to a climax towards the end of the book when the regular customers come for their evening drinks and a stranger walks in.
The Name of the Wind is beautifully written and vividly told. Although Kvothe at times is an arrogant, impatient idiot, I come to care for him and in a sense understand him. The hunger to learn more about him is definitely there, so I’m gonna have to read The Wise Man’s Fear soon.

Catch-up vol 2: Jacob’s Folly, Lolito, Let the Games Begin, and Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookshop

Once again I’ve been too busy to blog on a regular basis, so it’s time I wrote a few lines about the books I’ve been reading lately. The books I'm briefly reviewing here are all funny and excellent reads. So don't let my very short reviews stop you from devouring them! 

Jacob’s Folly by Rebecca Miller
Who wouldn’t like to be a fly on someone’s wall? But is it as lucrative to be reincarnated 300 years after your death as a fly? Jacob is delighted to find that his reincarnation has wings, but he is less enthused when he realises he has come back to earth as a fly rather than an angel. Jacob can see into the lives of the people he “stalks”. Leslie is middleaged, married, and desperate to be everyone’s saviour. 21-year old Misha is in need of saving. Her family are conservative Jews, so Misha’s dreams of becoming an actress don’t exactly fit. Since Jacob is now a fly, he’s not feeling particularly happy about his maker, so he decides to play with Leslie and Misha’s lives, and give them a bit of a push in the right/wrong direction.
As Jacob nudges Misha and Leslie closer together, we also learn about Jacob’s life as a Jew in Paris in the 1700s. Jacob goes from being the miserable husband of his “touched” child wife, to the servant of one of the French nobility. After becoming involved with his master’s mistress, Jacob is thrown out, only to find his real path as an actor.
Jacob’s Folly is a delightful read. At times laugh-out-loud funny, at times tear-jerking sad, it gives insight into life for (Conservative) Jews then and now. Furthermore, it is an intriguing story where we’re constantly wondering where it’s all going and what the whole purpose really is. Kind of like in real life. 

  Lolito by Ben Brooks
Lolito is a modern reimagining of the Nabokov’s classis Lolita. The main character is a 15-year old boy who has just found out that his girlfriend cheated on him. In an attempt to deal with his pain and confusion, he enters an online adult chat where he becomes involved with a woman in her 40s. Pretending to be older than he is, their chat soon escalates to cyber sex and from there to them meeting in person in London.
The teenagers we meet in Lolito are highly sexualised and at the same time extremely desensitized. The drink and do drugs without it seeming in any way to be a big deal. Our protagonist watches videos of cats being killed on youtube without any emotional reaction. Facebook statuses and newsheadings just filter right through him. However, there is a strong sense that he is really not able to deal with his current emotional state. I strongly feel that the book is asking the question “in today’s digital world, where any image is accessible at the push of a button, are children really children anymore?”. I’m not sure if the book provides a lot of answers, but it sure makes me stop and think.
Lolito is funny and well-written, and brings up important topics about teenages in today’s world. 

  Let the Games Begin by Niccolo Ammaniti
Outrageous, crazy and hilarious, Let the Games Begin is truly something else. The party of the century is happening in Rome, and everybody is going. We follow a failed Satanist and a confident author as their make their separate ways to this party of parties. The Satanist has decided to make his final stand, and use the party to sacrifice a former Metal-singer who turned Pop. The author is convinced that someone is out to get him (possibly the Finnish Tree-Mafia!), so he spends his time at the party jumping from woman to woman to elope with. All is going well until the hunt begins. Who is hunting who?

  Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookshop by Robin Sloan
This novel successfully brings together the physical book and Google’s power and awesomeness, if I can put it that way. It’s very much a book for our generation of late-twenties who are “going nowhere” careerwise due to the recession. Our protagonist Clay is stuck working the night shift at Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookshop after being retrenched. But nobody seems to be buying books anymore, and our hero soon start suspecting that the shop is merely a front for a very strange bookclub. In an effort to understand what this “bookclub” is all about, Clay stumbles upon a much more complex mystery than he could ever have imagined. And as chance would have it, even the code breaking machines of Google are unable to decipher it.
A thoroughly enjoyable read with lots of humour and heart. Perfect for passionate lovers of books – and Google. Here is something for the fantasy lover as well, and if you have a nerdy bone, that’ll be tickled too! Loved it.